Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Terminal Tony Talks

So, there we have it—the Liberal party room shouldn't turf Tony because it's the voters who do the hiring and the voters who should do the firing. These comments from Tony Abbott came as part of a last-ditch attempt to hold onto the prime ministership in the face of increasing pressure to resign. The notion that voters are ultimately responsible for choosing the Prime Minister will appeal to the electorate; however, it is oftentimes completely untrue.

A quick look at Australia's PMs over the last fifty years paints a picture. Hawke, Rudd, Gillard and Gorton were all knifed by the party room. Menzies retired, Holt died and Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General. That leaves only McMahon, Fraser, Keating, Howard and Rudd (2.0) who were forced from office by the electorate. In numbers, only 42% of our Prime Ministers in the last 60 years have left on voters' terms. With Australia's political history in mind, chances are that Abbott won't get the opportunity to be removed in an election. This casts doubt over his assertion today that voters are ultimately responsible for choosing and removing their Prime Ministers.

It's hard not to feel a lack of empowerment in the face of the figure I've given above. 68% of the time, voters don't even get a say in a change in Prime Minister. There's a lot to be said for the lack of democratic spirit that this represents. Though not constitutionally recognised, the Prime Minister has taken on increasing importance in Australian politics and with that importance has come increasing control over the executive branch. To deny Australians the right to have their say on a change in Prime Minister serves to concentrate power in the few and not the many, and as such is undemocratic.

With that said, it is also worthwhile to assess the viability of the status quo. Australia's electoral cycle is relatively short, so even when a dud prime minister is inflicted upon us, they will not be there long without the consent of the voters. Furthermore, there are risks in denying the parliamentary team full responsibility for choosing their leader, as is the case in the Labor Party. The parliamentary team must work with the Prime Minister very closer and is ultimately responsible for ensuring good governance. Therefore, if the parliamentary team is incapable of working with their leader, and as such wishes to remove him/her, this can only be in the interests of the country and the party. Failure to remove a Prime Minister who is unfit to lead and cannot work with the caucus members leads to a sclerotic decision making process and chaotic government, as was the case with the Rudd government.

Whether or not a parliamentary team should be given the power to change the Prime Minister without the consent of the electorate is something that does not have a clear answer. Denying the electorate a voice is undemocratic and breeds political apathy. Robbing the parliamentary team of the power to pick their leader runs the risk of stalling the decision making process and hampering the performance of government. What is certain, however, is that despite his assertion today that voters hire and fire their Prime Ministers, the odds are well and truly against Tony Abbott.

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